Profile: Keiji Tachikawa, President of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
J apan recently released a 25-year strategic roadmap for space that envisions development of an independent Japanese space station and lunar base as well as a hypersonic passenger transport.
But for Keiji Tachikawa, who took over as president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Dec. 15, there have been more immediate challenges. Primary among them is to re-establish the credibility of Japan’s space program following a rash of failures, including the costly November 2003 mishap involving the H-2A rocket that destroyed a pair of intelligence-gathering satellites.
The H-2A successfully returned to flight this past February with the launch of the MTSAT-1R weather and air traffic control satellite. But more tests await as JAXA seeks to fly out a manifest of missions that have been on hold for various reasons, including a comprehensive review of programs and practices ordered in the wake of the failures.
The former chief executive of NTT DoCoMo also faces persistent budget problems and questions about JAXA’s role in the international space station program. NASA, seeking to retire the space shuttle fleet by 2010, is looking to drastically curtail the number of assembly flights to the space station. This has cast a cloud of uncertainty over Japanese-built hardware slated to launch aboard shuttles to the station, including the Japanese Experiments Module and the Centrifuge facility.
Meanwhile, Tachikawa is attempting to break some of the bad bureaucratic habits left over from a time when Japan had three separate agencies involved in space activities. These agencies merged to form JAXA in 2003.
Tachikawa, who has served as a part time member of the Space Activities Commission, which oversees Japan’s space program, spoke recently with Space News correspondent Paul Kallender at JAXA’s Tokyo headquarters.
What have you done to restore the credibility of Japan’s space program?
I have been bringing in outside investigators to check and review JAXA top to bottom . The second task was restoring the sense of responsibility and morale of JAXA workers . Unless JAXA staff have a high awareness of their responsibilities and are motivated well, they will be unable to do their job well.
We also have to shed the bad practices of the bureaucracy and replace them with good private-sector practices. Communication has to be improved , especially between executives and management staff in JAXA as well as the private sector .
Does JAXA intend to develop an independent human spaceflight capability?
What we are talking about is independent access to space and the ability to return astronauts independently. For the long term, manned space activities are inevitable. Therefore, we must have an independent ability to access space. Our current international space station activities are based on acquiring knowledge to help us achieve that.
Will a Japanese human spaceflight program be built around the H-2A?
It’s okay to use the H-2A if we can secure the reliability. Of course we are looking at a new rocket system, but we feel that the H-2A will be the mainstay for the next 10 years. We are taking steps toward making the H-2A reliable enough to be human rated.
So how reliable is the H-2A?
We have a failure rate of one in seven as it is. From now we have announced 13 flights, so if those succeed it will fall to one in 20. If we get to that level, then we are reaching international standards. It will take about four years, but this is our target for the time being.
Will the Japanese public support a future manned space
They will support it, as long as you don’t mention the money involved. At the moment, unfortunately, the government is in a financial crisis and there are not many politicians who are willing to think about taking on the financial burdens that a manned space program will entail. But when we poll the Japanese public about whether they will support a manned space program, and we don’t mention the money, about 70 percent say they are in favor.
Do you think the H-2A can be successful commercially?
Cost-wise the rocket is almost the same as competitors. But the rocket’s success is based on its reliability. If it shows that it is reliable, we think it has the ability to be able to compete in the commercial market.
What are JAXA’s scientific priorities for the near future?
We have made summit-level agreements to conduct environmental monitoring and we will do our very best to fulfill our commitments. Astronomy is a different area, but we feel we should achieve in that area as well.
The Quas i-Zenith Satellite System for navigation and mobile communications has been bogged down by a dispute over which ministry will take responsibility for the project. Has there been any progress on this front?
Regarding the Quas i-Zenith research and development, jurisdiction has yet to be decided, but the government is doing its best to come to a decision as soon a possible. JAXA’s role is to develop positioning technologies. I want the government to come to a decision on who is going to manage this project so we can get it started as soon as possible.
When and how might the impasse be resolved ?
I don’t know, but we must do it. It takes time to build the satellites. GPS has line-of-sight issues with tall buildings and isn’t great in Japan for car navigation . The Quas i-Zenith program has the merits of being a cutting-edge development effort that will be of direct benefit to Japanese people.
What is the status of negotiations with NASA over the launch of the Centrifuge module to the international space station?
Recently, I see the press has been covering this story very heavily, especially the U.S. press. The number of shuttle flights and the final space station configuration are being evaluated by NASA and we have not heard the results of NASA’s study. The situation on the Centrifuge will be more clear after NASA determines the options on the overall space station plan. We have a legitimate intergovernmental agreement to provide the Centrifuge [in return for having the Japanese Experiments Module launched by the shuttle]. We have awarded most of the contract to develop the Centrifuge, and currently we are continuing to build it to fulfill our responsibilities.
Wouldn’t it be a terrible waste if the Centrifuge is not launched ?
I expect the U.S. to follow the plan that was agreed to multilaterally. I believe many scientists around the world are in need of this facility on orbit.
What role might JAXA play in U.S. President George W. Bush’s vision for space exploration?
NASA is looking for partners, and I think that sort of new exploration should be done as an international partnership . When I look at what Japan can contribute, I see a big role for Japan’s robotics technologies for use on the Moon. For science, we could provide telescopes, and one of our specialties is X-ray telescopes.
There were concerns that space science might suffer when the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and two other agencies were combined to form JAXA. Has that been the case?
Look at the budget for space science in Japan : It’s not declining, even though Japan’s overall budget and finances remain a problem. Our solar missions are in a hiatus, but Astro-E 2 is coming in July, and this is a wonderful telescope.
What type of hypersonic plane does JAXA envision developing?
In 20 years, we want to conduct a flight demonstration of hypersonic technology at Mach 5 with an experimental vehicle with high-level efficiency in energy consumption and without carbon dioxide emissions by using liquid hydrogen as fuel. If such a practical use plane is developed, we can complete a journey from Japan to the U.S. in two hours. At the moment it takes 12 hours and I hate it.